From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

The Yellow Birds

I was in the prima donna, self-centered phase of age seventeen, and my motives were simple—to enhance my final Health Assistant grade. To accomplish my goal, I volunteered at the nearby convalescent center.

For weeks, I grumbled to my boyfriend, “I can’t believe I’m stuck with tending to old people for free.” He agreed.

I soon realized that the bright yellow uniforms we were required to wear made matters even worse. On our first day at the center, the nurses took one look at our bright apparel and nicknamed us the “yellow birds.”

On the days I was scheduled to work, I complained to the other “yellow birds” about how emptying bedpans, changing soiled linens and spoon-feeding pureed foods to mumbling mouths were not things any teenager should have to do.

One long and tedious month passed before I first met Lily Sturgeon, an eighty-seven-year-old resident who would change my life. I was given a tray of food and sent to her room. As I entered, Lily’s bright blue eyes appraised me.

After talking with her for a few minutes, I realized why I hadn’t noticed Lily before that day. I had walked past her room numerous times, but, unlike many of the other residents, Lily was soft-spoken and congenial. From my first day at the center, I learned that the nurses had their favorites, usually those who had outstanding characteristics. From joke-tellers to singers, the loud and rambunctious received more attention.

There was something about Lily that I liked immediately. Strangely, I began to enjoy our talks.

One rainy afternoon she smiled and said, “Come here, Karen. Sit down. I have something to show you.” She lifted a small photo album and began to turn the pages. “This was my Albert. See him there? Such a handsome man.”

Her voice softened as she pointed to a pretty little girl sitting on top of a fence. “And that was our darling Emmy when she was eight years old.” Suddenly, a teardrop landed on the page.

I quickly turned to Lily. “What is it?” I whispered, placing my hand on hers. She turned the pages silently, and I noticed that Emmy was not in any of the other photographs.

Then Lily broke the silence. “She died from cancer that year,” Lily said sadly. “She’d been in and out of hospitals most of her life, but that year her little body just couldn’t take any more.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said, not knowing how to comfort her.

She smiled slightly as she turned to the last page. Inside the worn album was one more faded picture of a middle-aged Lily standing on tiptoes and kissing a clown’s cheek. “That’s my Albert,” she laughed, recalling happier memories. “After Emmy died, we decided to help the children at the hospital. We were disturbed by the dismal surroundings while Emmy was hospitalized.”

Lily stopped briefly to look at the photograph one more time. “That’s when Albert decided to become ‘Smiley the Clown.’ Emmy was always smiling, even in the worst of times. I scraped together what fabric I could find and sewed this costume for Albert.” She smiled and clapped her hands in joy. “The children loved it! Every weekend we’d volunteer at the hospitals to bring smiles and gifts to the children.”

“But you said that you were poor,” I reminded her. “How’d you manage that?”

“Well,” she grinned, “smiles are free, and the gifts weren’t anything fancy.” She closed the album and leaned back against her pillows. “Sometimes the local bakers donated goodies. When we were really hurting for money, we’d bring a fresh litter of pups from our farm. The children loved petting them. After Albert died, I noticed how faded and worn the costume was, so I rented one and dressed as Smiley myself . . . that is, until my first heart attack, about ten years ago. Smiley was then forced into retirement.”

When I left Lily’s room that day, I couldn’t think of anything but how generous she and Albert had been to children who weren’t even their own.

Graduation day neared and, on my last day, I hurried to Lily’s room. She was asleep, curled into a fetal position from stomach discomfort. I stroked her brow and worried about who would take care of her the way I did. She didn’t have any surviving family members, and most of the staff were too busy to give her the extra love and attention I had grown to so willingly share.

At times, I wanted to proclaim Lily’s virtues to the staff. She would stop me and remind me that the good things she’d done were done without thoughts of self. “Besides,” she would say, “doesn’t the good Lord tell us to store our treasures in heaven and not on this Earth?”

Lily must have sensed my anguish that day as I stood by her bed. Opening her eyes, she asked in a concerned voice laced with pain, “What is it, dear?”

“I’ll be back in two weeks,” I responded, explaining about high-school graduation. “And then I’ll visit you every day. I promise.”

She sighed and squeezed my fingers. “I can’t wait for you to tell me all about it.”

Two weeks later, I rushed back to the center with a bouquet of lilies in my hand. As I stepped into her clean, neat, unoccupied room, I searched for an answer to Lily’s whereabouts. My heart already knew the answer.

I threw the flowers on the bed and wept.

A nurse came in and gently touched my shoulder.

“Were you one of the yellow birds?” she asked. “Is your name Karen?”

I nodded, and she handed me a gift-wrapped box. “Lily wanted you to have this. We’ve had it since she died because we didn’t know how to get in touch with you.”

It was her photo album. Clutching it tightly to my chest, I quickly left.

Three weeks later, my horrified boyfriend stood before me. “You can’t be serious!” he said, pacing back and forth. “You look ridiculous!”

As I tried to look at myself in the mirror, he blocked my reflection. “You can’t be serious!” he repeated. “How in the world did you pay for that thing anyway?”

“With my graduation money,” I answered.

“What?” he exclaimed, shaking his head. “You spent the money that we saved for New York on that?

“Yep,” I said. “Life is more about giving than receiving.”

“This is just great,” he muttered, helping me tie the back of my costume. “And what am I supposed to say when someone asks me what my girlfriend’s name is? Bozo?”

Looking at my watch, I realized I needed to hurry if I wanted to make it on time to the Children’s Hospital. “Nope,” I answered, kissing him on the cheek. “Tell them it’s Smiley . . . Smiley the Clown.”

Karen Garrison

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